Leo-Watkins1-150x150The Privy Council is set to decide on the cross-party Royal Charter on 30 October. This date is fast approaching, but Leo Watkins of Enders Analysis  looks at the political considerations involved and argues that, even if granted next week, the Charter would not result in a new press regulator until autumn 2015.

There are three sides in the press regulation debate: 1: fidelity to Leveson’s recommendations; 2: opposition to Leveson’s recommendations and support for the PressBof plan for a new system of self-regulation; 3: uncommitted or somewhere between 1 and 2.

  1. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Hacked Off and the National Union of Journalists
  2. The Conservatives, News UK (NUK), DMG Media (DMG), Telegraph Media Group (TMG) and some regional publishers
  3. Guardian Media Group, the Lebedev Foundation, Pearson (owners of the Financial Times and the Economist), some regional publishers

The combined votes of the Liberal Democrats and Labour can defeat the Conservatives (in a Commons vote, they would probably be joined by the SNP, Plaid Cymru and some Conservative rebels); Maria Miller acknowledged this when she warned the press on 11 October that a boycott of the Royal Charter system would provoke Labour and the Liberal Democrats to implement Leveson through amendments to government bills.

Playing to the public

There is strong public support for implementing Leveson’s recommendations. So far, the public has not been persuaded by press protestations about the danger to free speech. What gains have been made in reframing this issue as one of free speech may quickly be reversed with the commencement of the criminal trials, due to start on 28 October, for alleged phone hacking and payments to public officials resulting from Operations Weeting and Elveden. It will be a powerful reminder of the 2011 scandal; no-one really knows the full extent of what they could reveal. They will be followed in 2014 by further trials.

Positions on the substantive issue are, in essence, determined by an assessment of where the bigger threat to individuals’ rights comes from: the state, through a system of regulation, or the press, through people lacking a good means of redress against it. The Conservatives think the former; Labour and the Liberal Democrats the latter. Politically, this issue is quite straightforward for those two parties. It is a way for Ed Miliband to feed the Labour narrative that he is someone who stands up to unaccountable, over-mighty, private power. Labour is attempting to redefine the meaning of leadership, away from being telegenic, charismatic and statesmanlike, and towards having the courage to stand up to the powerful – a courage they then accuse David Cameron of lacking. The Liberal Democrats see an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives, and they hardly have allies in the press to alienate.

What if…?

Both parties will also see an attraction in the difficulties this issue presents for David Cameron. If they pull out of their agreement with the Conservatives on the Royal Charter, Cameron will face an impossible choice: support statute, and he will lack the support of most of his backbenchers, risk the resignation of cabinet ministers, and alienate allies in the press;  oppose statute, and, while there may be ovations from his party and the press, he will suffer defeat in both Houses of Parliament, be attacked by the other two parties as too weak to stand up to the press, and be publicly denounced by the victims of phone hacking. For all that to happen while the trials resulting from Operations Weeting and Elveden are going on, and his connections to News Corp under renewed scrutiny, would cause immense damage to his personal standing in the eyes of the electorate.

This political background has generated a virtually unprecedented situation: the Government’s position is being driven by the Opposition and the junior Coalition partner. The Prime Minister is, in the main, having to accede to their demands so as to appear in control. In fact, since the Report was delivered David Cameron’s decision making has been characterised by a succession of last-minute wheezes and concessions, which he has been forced into by an opposing coalition with the Parliamentary votes to be able to dictate terms, and, more fundamentally, by the need to avoid alienating either of the two key constituencies involved – the victims of phone hacking and his party’s allies in the press – by avoiding having to finally pick a side.

The clear failure of the Royal Charter system would mean finally having to do so, because the choice would then be whether to back a tougher approach through statute or to back down in the face of a press boycott. Alienating either of those two constituencies a month or two before the election would be a gift to the other two parties, and is to be avoided at all costs. He is therefore putting off having to make that choice for as long as possible, preferably until after the election. That means pushing back the date at which the failure of the Royal Charter system becomes clear.

The Recognition Panel set up by the Royal Charter can issue a de facto verdict on whether the system has succeeded or failed from, at the earliest, a year and three months after the Charter has become effective. A change in the final draft means that, for these purposes, the Charter only becomes effective once the last member of the Recognition Panel has been appointed. That suggests an obvious tactic of giving the go-slow signal to those tasked with setting up the Panel. We believe that is what has happened. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s draft schedule is aiming for June 2014, which means a report from the Recognition Panel in autumn 2015.

The only way this process will be shaken up is if Labour and the Lib Dems lose faith in the Royal Charter approach and go for statute anyway. The risk of doing so is that, without an obvious justification, it might make the charge that they want to ‘gag the press’ more plausible in the eyes of the public. If Labour leaders are confident of victory in 2015, they may think it wise to wait until then and bring in plurality rules at the same time.

This post is an abbreviated version of a longer report by the author on the potential for implementing Leveson’s recommendations, which can be procured from Enders Analysis by contacting info@endersanalysis.com.  It was originally posted on the LSE Media Policy Project Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.